21 February 2016
Opera: Black Caesar
"I will now turn aside and see this great sight. . ."
For Moses it was the Burning Bush. For me earlier tonight, it was the Esquire Theatre's midnight showing of BLACK CAESAR, an amazing, brutal, and yes, operatic Blaxploitation film starring Fred Williamson.
The film, from 1973, is a straight-up gangster film played out with black characters. It depicts the rise to power of the 1950s shoeshine boy, Tommy Gibbs (Williamson), who finally becomes the big boss up in Harlem. Astonishingly, it prefigures Denzel Washington in AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), the lineaments of the plot being similar. Some scenes echo The Godfather, which came out the previous year. But even more I found myself thinking of the classic gangster pictures of the 1930s. I later read that, indeed, the film is a remake of 1931's LITTLE CAESAR. Oooooh, of course!
The film is awash with extremely red blood, full of violence and brutality, often with pumped-up racial stereotypes and liberal use of the now-proscribed 'n'-word. Irony and raw emotionalism team together to deliver punches that are normally the soup of grand opera. Witness the scene where Tommy, now the fabulously wealthy mob boss, drives his estranged father out to the skeleton wreck of the tenement in which Tommy lived as a boy with his mother, while the father was absent. In a tense scene played out there, Tommy holds a gun on the old man while the two trade barbs about the tragedy that was Tommy's childhood.
But most impressive is the film's setup and the climax that follows from it. At the beginning, Tommy is ostensibly making his living as a shoeshine boy on the streets of Harlem. We see that even at that young age he is assisting the local mob and corrupt cops. When he goes to deliver a cash payment to the worst of these white racist cops, the cop, McKinney, beats him senseless with his billy club, breaking Tommy's leg in the process.
After much mayhem and Tommy's rise to Black Godfather status, he finally gives the bad cop his comeuppance. In a gloriously over-the-top scene, he thrashes the cop with his old shoeshine box, then brutally blacks the cop's face with shoe polish, making him sing "Mammy. . .Alabammy!" while he clubs him to death with said shoeshine box!
Now THAT'S opera!